The capture and execution of Sir Robert Tresilian, chief justice of King’s bench, and the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388

On the 19th February 1388, one of the most dramatic events of medieval parliamentary history took place. Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project reflects on the capture and execution of Sir Robert Tresilian and the unusual circumstances surrounding it…

The appropriately and contemporaneously named ‘Merciless’ Parliament of 1388 was among the most dramatic of medieval Parliaments, and the capture and execution of Sir Robert Tresilian, chief justice of the King’s bench, on 19 February was, arguably, its most dramatic event. He, like others, was a victim of the orgy of political violence unleashed by the breakdown of relations between the young King and a powerful group of leading nobles, headed by his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel. That violence claimed more distinguished and worthy victims than Tresilian, but his execution claims a special interest not only as the first in the series but also for its unusual circumstances.

A portrait of a king. The background and frame are gold coloured. The frame also has dark rectangles alternating with the gold colour. The King has a crown on his head and is holding and orb and sceptre. He has red robes with a white fur trim, the fur covers the top half of his chest. He is wearing red shoes. He is sat down on a brown throne.
Portrait of Richard II, probably from 1390s, now in nave of Westminster Abbey

What is known of Tresilian does not paint him as a sympathetic figure. A Cornishman who had begun his legal career in the mid 1350s, he was promoted to the chief justiceship of the King’s bench in June 1381 after the brutal murder of his predecessor, Sir John Cavendish, during the Peasants’ Revolt. No doubt that murder justified to him harsh measures against the rebels, but he won an evil name for himself by going too far. Two chroniclers remark on the unrestrained severity with which he treated those suspected of involvement in the revolt, sending many to the gallows unjustly after intimidating juries into indicting and convicting. Further, he seems to have acquired, in a way that few late-medieval judges did, a reputation for corruption. The comprehensive pardon granted to him in July 1384 implies that he had been guilty of exploiting his great office for private gain, and, after his death, victims of that exploitation were quick to petition for redress. A fellow Cornishman, Ralph Trenewith, for example, claimed that, when he brought an assize of novel disseisin before Tresilian as justice of assize in Cornwall, the judge had purchased the disputed lands from the defendant and ordered the plaintiff to abandon his suit.    

Yet it was not a reputation for harshness and corruption that led to his fall. He attracted the ire of the ‘Lords Appellant’, led by Gloucester, for the part he had taken in the notorious episode of the ‘questions to the judges’. In the Parliament of 1386, a commission had been imposed on the young King, effectively removing government from his hands for a year. His response was to have the commission ruled illegal, and to that end he posed a series of questions to his judges in the autumn of 1387. Tresilian was held by the Appellants as principally responsible for both the questions and the contentious answers, notably the ruling that not only was the commission illegal but its architects deserved to be punished as traitors. It was for this that they included him among the five men whom they appealed of treason in November 1387.

Under pressure from the Appellants, the King reluctantly agreed to the trial of the five appellees in a Parliament scheduled to open at Westminster on the following 3 February. When, however, that Parliament assembled, the three most important of them – the earls of Suffolk and Oxford and the archbishop of York – had wisely fled, and only the former mayor of London, Sir Nicholas Brembre, was in custody. Tresilian’s whereabouts remained unknown until it was dramatically revealed 16 days into the Parliament. There are rival accounts of what precisely happened. The most vivid is provided by Thomas Fovent, an obscure Wiltshire cleric, who wrote a seemingly well-informed account in the Appellant interest. He claims that Tresilian’s arrest was the fortuitous result of the judge’s own foolhardiness: he was spotted, ‘above the gutters of a house next to the palace, hiding among the rooftops and watching the lords coming and going from Parliament’. Other evidence, however, suggests that the judge had concealed himself in the precinct of the abbey of Westminster’s sanctuary, that his hiding place was betrayed, and that he was illegally taken from there. Given Fovent’s evident support for the Appellants, his account was probably a fabrication designed to conceal the controversial nature of the judge’s arrest. 

A painting of inside a building. Outside the arch shaped doorway are two people and a dog shape. There are buildings, blue sky, and a tree that can be seen through a window. Inside the room is a man knelt on a rug on the floor with his hands in prayer and blindfolded. Beside him is a man wielding a sword ready to execute the man kneeling. There are three people stood off the rug looking at the knelt man. there is also a dog laying down by the people stood.
A fanciful representation of the execution of Tresilian (he was hanged not beheaded) from a miniature of c. 1475 from a Flemish manuscript of Froissart’s Chronicles: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 2645, f. 238v.

Once he had fallen into his enemy’s hands, Tresilian’s fate was quickly sealed. The parliamentary process against him was summary. His earlier failures to appear to answer the appeal amounted to conviction under its terms. When he questioned the legality of this process, he was met, in the words of the Westminster chronicler, with ‘the swift retort that the action or judgement of the parliament was irrevocable’. Conviction was immediately followed by execution. The fullest account of his death is Fovent’s harshly unsympathetic one. He claims that the unfortunate judge had to be whipped to force him into climbing the ladder to the gallows at Tyburn. Then, after he had claimed to be wearing charms that would protect him from death, he was stripped naked and found to be adorned with ‘amulets and signs painted with celestial characters, the head of a devil and the names of demons’. Although the claim that Tresilian had an annulet with mystical powers also appears in a contemporary devotional text complied at Bordesley Abbey in Worcestershire, the polemical nature of Fovent’s tract does not invite belief in this improbable story. If Tresilian really placed his belief in these charms, why did he reveal their existence to his executioners? The Westminster chronicler gives a more sympathetic account, implying that Tresilian died with courage for ‘no fear or shame or dread altered his refusal to admit that he had ever been a traitor’.

Tresilian’s execution was followed by those of others, on equally slender legal grounds. The extremity of the measures eventually threatened the unity of the King’s opponents. The beheading of Sir Simon Burley, a knight of the Garter and once the King’s tutor, on 5 May was forced through by Gloucester and Arundel against opposition that included their fellow Appellants, the earls of Derby and Nottingham. It is worth emphasising quite how extreme were the tactics employed by the Appellants. Parliament was used, not as it had been in 1376 and, only two years before, in 1386, to remove royal ministers from office and influence, but to end their lives; the novel process of appeal was described by judges, appointed by the Appellants themselves, as inconsistent with common law; and, in the taking of Tresilian, the privileges of sanctuary were disregarded. One contemporary chronicle was emphatic in its criticism: the Appellants ‘most cruelly put to death certain knights and justices … contrary to the King’s will and the equity of the law… and did many other things which it is better to pass over in silence than to relate’. If Tresilian himself was not a figure worthy of much sympathy, other of the Appellant victims were, notably Burley and the courageous Brembre. If these extreme tactics do not excuse the revenge Richard II exacted in 1397, it is easy to argue that his principal victims, Gloucester and Arundel, then reaped the harvest they had sown.


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